Last weekend, I drove with Pixl Press director Anne Voute beneath smoke-induced blushing skies from Vancouver to Calgary. We were heading for the eighth annual writers festival, When Words Collide in Calgary. As we drove, we were thinking: wildfires.
The drive took us out of BC’s coastal western hemlock region northwest towards Kamloops into the heart of wildfire country where hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest are now burning. The day we left, a wildfire had broken out much closer to home—between Hope and Agassiz, just west of BC Highway 7. We smelled the smoke as it billowed up and filled the valley. While a majority of fires were concentrated in areas northwest and southwest of Prince George, a number of them were already filling our coastal skies with enough particulates to create a red ball of the sun—and prompt air advisories throughout BC. The smoke stayed with us throughout the entire drive to Calgary.
In a recent article in “The Grist”, Kate Yoder mentioned the extensive heat maps that cover most of Europe. A new shade—magenta—was created to show the extreme over 35 degree temperatures blanketing much of Spain, France and Germany. According to Yoder, the Carr Fire in California was one of the most severe in their history; it burned down 1,000 homes and even spun a fire tornado through the air—uber scary!
“Over a decade or so, we’re going to have more fire, more destructive fire, more billions that will have to be spent on it,” California Governor Jerry Brown said recently. “All that is the ‘new normal’ that we will have to face.” Yoder asks: “Why on earth is the word normal being thrown around to describe such extraordinary times?” Normal is a dangerous term to use for many reasons. Most places can’t afford a future where climate change and sea level rise are the ‘new normal.’ Calling anything like this ‘normal’ suggests acceptance and hints at complacency.
In my upcoming book A Diary in the Age of Water, limnologist Lynna contemplates in her journal on our tendency to turn a blind eye to environmental destruction. In one of her entries, Lynna discusses UBC fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly’s description of generational differences in the perception of dwindling fish populations. In 1995, Pauly coined the term ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ to describe peoples’ shifting concept of ‘normal and healthy’ in a shifting landscape. Inevitably, the past ‘normal’ is forgotten as the new ‘normal’ is embraced.
“Personally,” says Pauly in an interview with Yoder, “I think it’s wrong [to use the ‘new normal’]. We’re in the middle of a shift that can destroy what we hold dear, and to call this ‘normal’ is absurd.”The term ‘normal’ suggests a static and relatively constant phenomenon, one that can be measured and predicted based on a known pattern. One of the reasons some people dismiss the reality of climate change is its very unpredictability (if we can’t measure it, it isn’t real). We are on the steep side of a curve whose slope is shifting with each year. NPR correspondent Kirk Siegler defined it this way: “The ‘new normal’ may be that things are just going to keep getting worse.”
On our approach to Kamloops, we drove through kilometres of Engelmann Spruce and subalpine fir, changing to Ponderosa Pine with pockets of sagebrush Chaparral near Merrit. Last year, Kamloops lurked beneath a gray blanket of wildfire smoke and smelled of an old campfire; this year, despite ongoing wildfire activity nearby, we could see where we were going. The winds were on our side—for the time being. That would change; by the time we returned to Vancouver, the winds had moved southwest to blanket the lower mainland with a peach-coloured sky.
As we headed for Golden, dominant vegetation shifted to Interior Cedar / Hemlock, where extreme drought conditions prevailed. We saw evidence of previous and recent fires in the Engelmann Spruce and Subalpine Fir forest stands as we continued through the south end of the Rocky Mountain Trench into the Rockies then on to Banff, Canmore and finally Calgary. Smoke clung like grease to steep mountain sides and blanketed the valleys. Blue cliffs emerged from gray-pink low cloud, floating and suspended like a Lao Tse painting. Then, like ghosts, they vanished.
The limnologist in my book A Diary in the Age of Water also writes about Peter Kahn, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, who coined the term ‘environmental generational amnesia’ to describe how each generation can only recognize—and appreciate—the ecological changes they experience in their lifetimes. In an article in The Meaning Of Water I argued that the inability to feel and connect beyond our immediate line of sight is a good thing—a kind of selective memory that allows us to adapt to each “new normal.” Mothers of several children can testify to the benefits of “forgetting” their hours of labour to give birth. Hence the ability and willingness to repeat this very painful experience.
Is this part of successful biological adaptation in all of us? The ability to reset? But, for the environment and our relationship with it, it is never really a reset. It is more like quiet acquiescence as we whittle our environment—and ourselves along with It—one unobtrusive forest at a time. I’m reminded of the lobster in the pot of water slowly coming to a boil. It doesn’t realize it’s dying until it does. And on some level, it doesn’t care—it is not sufficiently aware of its environment to appreciate what the incremental change means to its own survival. When does dis-ease turn to alarm? Who is to say that if that lobster wasn’t confined in a pot it would not have slowly edged away from the source of heat—like some of us deciding not to buy property in a 100-year floodplain?
The phenomenon described by Kahn’s environmental generational amnesia is not so much about not understanding or caring about the past, but of not being sufficiently connected to and caring about the present.
Each generation has its chance to connect and make a difference. Each generation is its own “reset”, providing a fresh perspective, and free to connect in its own way. It is all about connection. To return to my example of the mother gladly giving birth again and again—it is not that she has forgotten the pain; it is rather that she chooses to relegate her memory of it behind something far more beautiful and wondrous to remember: the miraculous birth of her child. Environmental generational amnesia is really part of a larger amnesia, one that encompasses many generations; a selective memory driven by lack of connection and short-sighted greed.
A Diary in the Age of Water explores identity and our concept of what is “normal”—as a nation and an individual—in a world that is rapidly and incomprehensibly changing.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”—George Santayana